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Utah State beats Louisiana Tech

STEVE RANSON
Appeal News Service

RENO – Jaycee Carroll sunk 5-of-6 free throws in the final 23 seconds Friday to lift Utah State to a 68-64 win over Louisiana Tech in the men’s semifinal game of the Western Athletic Conference basketball tournament at Lawlor Events Center.

The forward guard from Evanston, Wyo., along with Tech’s Paul Millsap scored 18 points each.

The Aggies (23-7) advance to tonight’s championship game against Nevada. During the season each team split by winning on the road.

Carroll paced the Aggies in the second half as Utah State avoided a loss to the third-seeded Bulldogs.

“Jaycee stepped up and made some big ones,” coach Stew Morrill said of Carroll’s timely shooting.

While Utah State’s offense shot 46 percent against Tech, the key to the Aggies’ success was how Cass Matheus defended against Millsap. Millsap, the nation’s leading rebounder, had only seven boards, six of them on offense.

“Matheus took the challenge. He struggled with his rebounding in the first half, but he played better in the second half,” Morrill said.

Tech coach Keith Richard said the game featured two different strengths, Utah State’s offense and Tech’s defense.

“Our guys did a good job guarding them. We needed a little more offense tonight,” Richard said.

Tech had only two other players in double figures, Trey McDowell with 14 including four 3-pointers and Jerome Richardson with 10.

The momentum shifted seconds before halftime, though, when Utah State’s Nate Harris (13 points, seven rebounds) swished a trey from the other end of the court.

With less than two seconds remaining before halftime, the 6-foot-7 forward threw his best curveball almost three-quarters of the court away from the basket. The ball swished the net and dropped to the floor.

After referees reviewed the video replay, they awarded Harris the 3-pointer, giving him 11 points in the first half. Instead of leading by one point at intermission, the Aggies ran into the locker room with a 29-25 lead.

Utah State led by as many as eight points early in the second half, but Millsap answered the challenge by scoring four points to keep Tech in the game.

Utah State also had another weapon in David Pak. The 6-foot-2 guard found a way to penetrate the inside and scored several layups while gyrating around the Tech defense. He finished the game with 14 points.

“David stayed aggressive,” Morrill said with a big smile.

Pak said he didn’t feel the pressure.

“I felt comfortable. I came out fresh and relaxed,” he said.

In the final five minutes, Utah State built a nine-point lead, 59-50, after Harris sunk a pair of free throws. Tech kept chipping away at the lead and with 16 seconds left, trailing 64-62 after McDowell launched a 3-poiner from the top of the key.

Utah State regained a four-point lead, but Millsap’s rebound and put back with one second left on the clock was the closest Tech would come.

The grind of the season and last weekend’s trip to Hawaii began to show with the Bulldogs.

“Fatigue and frustration set in the second half. I was giving my all as the game was winding down,” Millsap said.

The first half was just as intense as the second.

Utah State led the Bulldogs by as many as six points on two different occasions.

After Daevon Haskins tied the game at 16 on two free throws, Utah State took off on a 6-0 run. Carroll scored on a leaping layup and bank shot, and Harris sunk a pair of free throws.

McDowell drilled the Bulldogs’ first 3-pointer with 1:24 left in the half, slicing the Aggies’ lead to 26-23. On Tech’s next trip down the court, Chad McKenzie drilled a shot just inside the arc.

Haskins stole the ball with 18 seconds left and passed it to MacKenzie who missed his shot. That’s when Harris picked up the ball and launched his “Hail Mary” shot.

With his team out of the hunt for a WAC championship, Richard feels his team has a good shot of being invited to the NIT.

“This team has done enough to get into the NIT. I look forward to their call Sunday night,” Richard said.

USU Notes: The Aggies have now reached the tournament championship game for the fifth time in six years … Harris has scored in double figures in 28 games this season and 76 times in his career, while Carroll has scored in double digits in 27 games … Utah State’s 23 wins ties it for the eighth-most in school history.